Byline: Barry Massey THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Manny Aragon walked out of a committee meeting headed by one of the state representatives who brought the lawsuit.
SANTA FE -- The Senate's top Democratic leader and his allies are angry with a senior Democratic House member because of the latest maneuvers in a prison-financing lawsuit.
The bad blood between Senate President Manny Aragon, an Albuquerque Democrat, and Rep. Max Coll, a Santa Fe Democrat, boiled over Friday and led to the abrupt cancellation of a Legislative Finance Committee meeting. Senators walked out after a closed-door session, and the rest of the public hearing was scrapped.
Aragon, in an interview after the meeting, objected that he and his business associates have become a target of a search for documents in pretrial proceedings of the lawsuit brought by Coll and another legislator.
Coll and Rep. Jerry Lee Alwin, an Albuquerque Republican, brought the lawsuit challenging the legality of a bond-financing package for prisons under construction in Hobbs and Santa Rosa.
A private company, Wackenhut Corrections Corp., will operate the prisons for Lea and Guadalupe counties and is financing construction pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
The object of Aragon's ire is a subpoena served this week on a top Wackenhut executive, Wayne Calabrese, to provide sworn deposition testimony in the prison-financing lawsuit.
Lawyers for Coll and Alwin also asked Wackenhut to provide documents about any of its contacts and business dealings with Aragon, the senator's construction companies and one of Aragon's business associates, Francisco Melendez, whose company has won a contract to do concrete work at the Santa Rosa prison.
Aragon suggested that lawyers for Coll were trying to use the lawsuit to investigate his private business operations.
"What does that have to do with his lawsuit?" Aragon asked.
He left the committee hearing, followed by other senators, because he was upset with Coll.
"I don't care for his disrespect (for me) and his disrespect for the institution," Aragon said of Coll, the chairman of the committee.
One of Aragon's allies, Sen. Shannon Robinson, an Albuquerque Democrat, was more blunt in criticizing Coll.
"We're really sick of Max right now," Robinson said.
Coll declined to comment immediately after the closed-door session.
But Coll later spoke after being told of Aragon's statements.
Coll said he was unaware of the subpoena of the Wackenhut executive until Aragon raised the matter in the closed-door private meeting of committee members.
"I can see why Sen. Aragon would feel hurt that people are inquiring about him and his activities. I sympathize with that," said Coll.
"But I am in a lawsuit about constitutional issues which I think are of importance. And I don't interfere with the lawyers how they run that suit, and they don't clear with me who they are going to depose and what they are going to ask."
Victor Marshall, the Albuquerque lawyer handling the prison lawsuit, declined to explain why Aragon was a subject of inquiry. He said Calabrese would be deposed next month.
However, Wackenhut has confirmed that Melendez Concrete got a contract because it was a low bidder. A company spokesman has said Aragon never approached Wackenhut about the concrete contract.
Melendez is a vice president of a separate general-contracting company, Asi Es Inc., of which Aragon is president.
Aragon has been an opponent of the private prisons and a critic of Wackenhut.
Aragon is president of another company that does pipe-laying work, JAM Construction Co.
Last month, Aragon stated his company might bid on some work at the Santa Rosa prison even though he opposed the project. However, no bid was submitted and Aragon's company received no contracts, according to Wackenhut.
This week's request for documents to Wackenhut went well beyond Aragon, however.
In the subpoena, Marshall asked Wackenhut for information about prison financing and operations and whether the company has made political contributions to the state Democratic and Republican parties, any groups' political action committees, political committees of any public officeholders in New Mexico, or GOP Chairman John Dendahl.
Dendahl speculated that he's a subject of questions because of letters he sent recently saying that Alwin had aligned himself with a "liberal Democrat" in the lawsuit to torpedo the prisons backed by GOP Gov. Gary Johnson.
But Dendahl took no offense to the legal tactics of Marshall and another lawyer in the case, Anthony Williams of Belen, both former GOP state senators.
"They want to find out if there is any kind of skullduggery between Wackenhut and me. They're not going to find any, but I don't blame for trying. That's what lawyers get paid for -- to hassle everybody until they finally shake somebody down," Dendahl said.